Davis Has Warning, Plea for Californians

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Governor Urges Conservation as Energy Woes — and Criticism of His Record — Grow

The Washington Post

Gov. Gray Davis (D) tonight delivered an urgent warning to California’s residents that more severe power shortages and blackouts soon lie ahead unless they take swift and dramatic steps to conserve electricity.

In a rare address broadcast live on television and radio stations across the state, Davis also said for the first time that consumer rate increases are necessary to help solve California’s power predicament. But he strongly defended his approach to fixing the state’s severe supply-and-demand problems, and repeatedly blamed federal officials for “refusing to do their job” and control soaring wholesale energy costs.

Davis’s five-minute address, the first such move by a California governor in nine years, is testament to how dire the state’s struggle to keep its lights on is becoming. There are abundant signs that California’s frantic attempts for the past two months to solve or at least reduce its power crisis are failing — and that voters are getting restless with how the governor is confronting the problem.

Tonight, Davis said his administration is rushing to increase the state’s supply of power by licensing new power plants, some of which will be operating by late summer. But he stressed that the only short-term escape from blackouts would be a massive conservation effort by everyone.

“In order to make it through the summer,” Davis said, “we must cut demand by at least 10 percent.”

After making adamant pledges for the past three months to protect consumers from rate increases, Davis shifted his position tonight and said he supported as much as a 26 percent hike in monthly energy bills for many residents and businesses. Consumer groups denounced the proposal.

Harvey Rosenfield, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica, said the governor’s address amounted to “turn out the lights, turn off your air conditioners, take out your wallet.” His and other consumer groups are vowing to lead a ratepayers’ revolt.

Earlier this week, as he urged state lawmakers to approve a $ 1.4 billion package of legislation to promote electricity conservation, Davis warned that California could be hit with more rounds of rolling blackouts as early as May, when hot weather begins to create heavier public demand for power. State officials had said the greatest threat of more blackouts would be in July or August.

California could be short several thousand megawatts of power it will likely need later this spring because new generating plants that would help ease supply shortages will not be operating until July at the earliest. The state also apparently has not yet secured sufficient power from energy suppliers to meet expected demand next month. A drought across the Northwest in recent months also will diminish hydroelectric power imports from that region to California.

Since the state’s energy crisis began in January, California has spent nearly $ 4 billion buying emergency power supplies on the high-priced spot market to avoid persistent blackouts. But it has little else to show for the extraordinary expense.

The state’s two largest utility companies, which serve more than 25 million residents, are on the brink of bankruptcy. And despite more than a month of negotiations, a deal that Davis hopes to strike with the utilities on a multibillion-dollar package to help keep them solvent may be falling apart.

Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission also took the extreme step of raising consumer electricity rates immediately by as much as 46 percent. That move could force most Californians, who already have some of the nation’s highest utility bills, to pay nearly $ 200 more a year for electricity. Davis tonight called that increase excessive.

Since January, most California voters have directed most of their frustration over power shortages and rolling blackouts at the state’s disastrous energy deregulation plan, which was signed into law before Davis took office two years ago. They also have blamed the out-of-state energy suppliers whom Davis and other leaders have derided as price-gouging profiteers.

But public patience with Davis’s management of the crisis appears to be dwindling. Even some Democratic officials have begun raising questions about his approach.

Davis sought to reassure the state tonight. But he also pleaded for help. “We have a power shortage, but we are far from powerless,” he said. “We are 34 million strong, and if each of us does our part, we can minimize disruptions and get through the summer.”

Consumer Watchdog
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